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Sunday, October 7, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.
Joseph L. Morrow
Minister for Evangelism, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Every night at the dinner table, I ask my daughter to choose what our family has begun to call “thank-you songs” as a grace before our meals. These are either one-sentence prayers or a repeated refrain from a communion hymn. Earlier this week, unprompted, she began singing, “I’ve got peace like a river.” As a father and pastor, my heart swelled a bit at this unprompted voicing of gratitude by our daughter. I must be doing something right! Moved by her enthusiasm, I let my mind get lulled into a sweet image of a gentle stream merrily dancing its way across flower-filled meadows. But then the skeptic in me raised an objection to the image. No, I said to myself. No! Since when is every a river a peaceful one!
Turn the pages of scripture and you’ll see that from the Garden of Eden in Genesis to the New Jerusalem in Revelation, rivers are important but not always tranquil. As the prophet Amos reminds us, sometimes rivers must pass through the rolling waters of justice and the mighty stream of righteousness. Indeed, the peace we hear of in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and in Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation is not always calm. A calm peace is not what many of us experience in our current moment. A calm peace is not what the city felt as it waited for the verdict in the trial of Jason Van Dyke. A calm peace is not what those who relived past traumas felt as they watched judicial confirmation hearings unfold in our nation’s capital. A calm peace is not what many of us feel when illness descends on our bodies. So you can be forgiven if in this moment you find yourself asking, Where can true peace be found?
In the days when Jesus walked the earth and the early church began to grow, the Roman Empire felt it had found lasting peace. Rome’s governing powers through the emperor, the political elite, and its army brought peace at the end of a sword. By conquering and subduing peoples throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world, it obtained a kind of stability. Commerce could thrive as infrastructure projects like roads and aqueducts eased travel. A code of law lethally enforced and citizenship tightly monitored gave each person a secure, if limited, place in the social order. Peace was conformity to norms set by Rome. Go along and you will assuredly get along. Caesar says you can make a respectable living here if you stay in line.
But for all that power, there were ethnic and religious conflicts for which Rome’s conquest resulted in a half-hearted peace, only kept by social groups conforming to the rule of Caesar. So it was between Jews and Gentiles. Jews in Diaspora throughout the empire concerned themselves with walking the thin line of seizing economic and social opportunity while preserving cultural tradition. Sometimes this made them indifferent to their Gentile neighbors. Other times it aggravated tensions when they were asked to compromise their religious beliefs. But movements like the one Jesus began blurred the lines that Rome had carefully drawn to maintain control and ultimate allegiance. The church allowed non-Jews, Gentiles of many ethnic groups, into what had been mostly a Jewish story. While conflict ensued over the price of admission, the church presented the possibility of a new community of deep and abiding peace that didn’t depend on Roman control.
At the heart of such a community is the willingness of individuals to more deeply know one another. As the situation in our own nation reminds us, consequential and important verdicts and votes will not better our common life if we are too frustrated or fearful to cross the lines of division that have been drawn around us. By retreating into our likeminded camps or entertainment provided by soothing screens, we risk being lulled into the half-hearted peace of comfort where we remain strangers to each others’ pain and gifts.
Trevor Noah, the host of the Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, wrote a book entitled Born a Crime. The title refers back to a South African law, the Immorality Act of 1927, which made the union between his mother from the South Africa’s Xhosa tribe and his father from Switzerland illegal. If discovered, the couple would be “guilty of an offense and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding 5 years.” Trevor writes that the experience of his parents daring to cross the lines exposed how an intercultural relationship not only “challenges the system as unjust, it reveals the system as unsustainable and incoherent.” As the product of his parents’ union, he “embodies that rebuke to the logic of the system. By obfuscating both law and custom, Noah’s parents redrew the encased lines of identity in South African society. Yes, sometimes we must disturb the peace in order that a greater peace might be realized.
Similarly, the gospel proclaimed by Jesus and preached by Paul insists that true peace or unity cannot be achieved by Jews or Gentiles being in compliance with the preferences of Roman law or by copying each others’ folk ways. Instead the gospel calls us to redraw the lines so that we all fit inside its moral circle. It is not unlike the experience of those like Trevor Noah with mixed ethnic or racial heritage, who remind us that as neighbors and citizens we can contain multitudes and yet be whole and inclusive. The new humanity that obtains its peace in Christ does not regard difference as a deficit to be overcome but rather as a starting place from which people with distinct identities can discover and struggle over how Christ is joining them together (Brian Bantum, Ex Auditu, vol. 26, 2011). The Ephesian community and the many like it scattered throughout the Roman Empire were outposts of this new humanity where peace could break out, as Allan Boesak puts it, “between colonized and colonizers, women and men, marginalized and privileged.” (Allan Boesak and Curtiss Paul DeYoung Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism). In a world that sought to alienate peoples from one another, the peace of Christ helped people locate home and find community. Ephesians calls that community the household of God, a kind of social dwelling that needs to be built, like an architect constructs a home.
Now, this congregation is no stranger to architecture. Whether you are here for the first time or have sat in these pews many times, you might notice the finery and beauty in this sanctuary, from the angels adorning the ceiling to the tapestries mirroring the stain glass to the ornate masonry around the pulpit. But the most important architectural element in this space is behind me in the table of wood and this cup of fired clay. The wood of that table replaces the violence of the wooden cross upon on which Jesus was nailed. The cup fired in the kiln was culled from the clay of the ground, which represents our fragile bodies so full of possibilities. It is the table and the meal we share at it that define the Christian contribution to peace; it is our social architecture. The household of God is built around the meal that Jesus’ disciples share with him—in which that new covenant is made and a fuller peace is brokered.
Now, I’m fully aware that meal sharing can also become its own half-hearted peace, where we dominate others with our own rules and hospitality becomes hostility by other means. Even a table filled with delicious foods will not secure peace if we continue to drink from the cup of conquest or comfort. If the menu never changes, it won’t matter who is at the table.
The Christ who came among the lonely, disenfranchised, and marginalized invites all of us to a table where their stories are centered and shared, where their lives are seen and not avoided. The menu at Christ’s table is filled with these stories from our neighbors we have been unable or reluctant to hear. As we feast on these stories together, they may be an acquired taste for those of us who live in relative comfort or who have simply not tasted the affliction of someone else’s pain rather than our own. But these stories of trial and triumph can nourish our hearts with repentance toward those whom Christ puts at the center of his table: children, the downtrodden, the weak, those who suffer, and those who mourn. These dining companions encourage us to partake in the bread of goodness, justice, and right relationship and to refuse the cup of cruelty and injustice. This is not fast food. It is not the cheapened grace of those who force a smile, momentarily putting aside their prejudice, only to pick it up again. This is slow food. It is the costly and precious grace found in building peace not through agreement but in redrawing the lines of care and concern.
The table of this costly and precious grace is not bolted to the floor of this sanctuary. It is a moveable feast that goes wherever you and I gather. On World Communion Sunday we celebrate that, despite the world’s warring madness, there is a peace breaking out at the table.
As we turn to breaking this bread together, we join with siblings in South Sudan who are now tucking children to bed and the church in India waking up to Monday morning. All of us, though separated by circumstance and time zones, sit at a table that asks us to make each others’ cares our own and each others’ hunger for a better world our own. If there is indeed peace like a river, this is the peace of which I want to sing with my daughter around our table: peace like a river teeming with justice and overflowing with God’s love. Amen.